Every day community colleges students are bombarded with texts that aim to sway their opinions, entice them to buy products, or ask them to think a particular way about a political candidate, the classes they might take, or the issues that concern them. As readers and writers in the digital age, a fellow community college colleague and I felt that it was important for students to think through, understand, and be critical of these texts. We wanted them to be particularly critical of the “information” they so often access without question on the internet, so we developed this rhetorical analysis assignment.
The assignment asked students to analyze the moves made in one of several websites assigned to the class. Students were asked to identify the author, audience, and purpose. Then they were asked to analyze the rhetoric of the images, the colors, the font style, and the text. They were to answer the question: How does the author attempt to reach the audience? Then, they needed to address the follow-up question, which asked students to reflect on whether or not the author was effective in reaching the intended audience.
Our goal was to help students to become aware of the ways in which information can be presented to easily sway an intended audience. Our hope is for students to be critical readers and thinkers in the world. While our goals may be lofty, our objectives were much more grounded. For this assignment, 1) students would be able critically read a website; 2) students would be able to use analysis of style, layout, and text to make claims about how the website worked to reach its intended audience; and, 3) students would be able to evaluate the efficacy of the site in reaching its intended audience.
The assignment had clear objectives and goals, and my colleague and I were satisfied with the work in which the students would engage. But, we felt the assignment could work to foster additional critical thinking if we could further the dialog. We decided one way to continue the dialog outside of class was to have the students post their analyses to an inter-campus blog. In 2008, my colleague and I attended the Northern California Writing Project Summer Institute, where we were introduced to blogs as a classroom tool. As a result, my students (Yuba) and my colleague’s students (at two separate campuses) posted their finished papers to a blog. Once the analyses were public, the students at all three campuses (Butte, Shasta) were asked to respond one another using some clear lines of questioning.
The results were better than we could have anticipated. Students’ original analyses were really interesting, but their discussions online were even more so. What was even more surprising was the fact that their original papers became the subject of a larger discussion outside of their class. Some of the authors of the websites they had analyzed commented on their analyses. In one instance, a students’ analysis of a health food website was adopted as a reference on another health website. Suddenly, the dialog of the students reached beyond their classrooms and campus to the world.